Is Working From Home Why You're Down in the Dumps?

Reports that people are "losing it" working from home seem to be on the rise, but is that really the problem?

Today I was browsing through content I’ve saved in Pocket, which is the app I use to curate articles of interest for later reference. (If you don’t have the app, I recommend it; I have the paid version, and no, I don’t get any affiliate commission if you sign up. I just think it’s handy.)

As I browsed, I came across a piece from The Globe and Mail I read last month entitled, “Working from home is causing breakdowns. Ignoring the problem and blaming the pandemic is no longer an option.”

The article talks about the emotional stultification people are enduring as an alleged result of their changed work circumstances. Here’s a snippet:

[I]t’s now clear that for many white collar professionals the struggle is very real. There isn’t an obvious reason why they are feeling this way now. Financial success can mask mounting psychological stresses – especially because white collar workers can easily tell themselves that they’ve come through the pandemic relatively unscathed and shouldn’t be struggling.

“There’s so much going on right now. And nobody can really point their finger at it,” says KPMG Canada’s chief mental-health officer Denis Trottier, who was semi-retired until the pandemic brought him back to work full time.

The feelings can be partly explained by the erasure of social connections at work that help people power through long, intense days. Work and home life now blend into one – with work often taking precedence. Gone are the small joys of life that once seemed like distractions, but that researchers say are important to keeping us engaged and preventing burnout: the coffees, the lunches, the gossip.

But so much of it remains nebulous – and that can make it even more maddening.

Bryn Ferris is a change management consultant who can work from home, and his company has done well enough to keep everyone employed. For many months, he felt relief that his business wasn’t severely affected.

Lately, though, he feels something much more harrowing. The emotion is hard to define – it’s more, as he calls it, a “steady-state numbness.” There’s little joy day in and day out, and it’s a battle to get motivated.

“I empathize with the feeling that we have it so good,” he says. But it’s such an overwhelming problem lately that he’s past denying it or trying to power through it. Like so many others, he’s hit the wall, and doesn’t see a way out. “I am stuck in purgatory,” he says.

I put up a somewhat detailed Twitter thread about this article when it came out, and I’ll be self-plagiarizing (with significant edits) some of that here because I think it’s worth sharing with all of you here again. It’s a problem that hasn’t gone away, and I’m wrestling with it myself every day. (Going through an ill-timed mid-life crisis doesn’t help, but I’ll not burden you with personal baggage here when there’s enough collective difficulty to go around.)

So here’s the deal: I think there’s something bigger going on than work-from-home malaise, and such explanations only scratch the surface. Yes, people working from home, blurring work/life balance, not having as many social interactions, etc. all matter when it comes to burnout and emotional exhaustion.

But I’ve been doing all that for a while, and what is happening is something new.

This year marks my 8th year working exclusively from home. I left my last office job in 2013; I started 1P5 the next year.

I've dealt with all the issues mentioned in the article for a while. Trying to work while your kids are home, no separation of work/home life, lost social interactions (particularly about work topics, which is why I'm on social media so much), and so on.

But in the past six months or so, I've been in a different kind of funk I can neither escape from nor adequately understand.

In a sense, COVID didn’t really change my life much. I’m a homebody. I rarely go out. I visit friends only occasionally. Most of my preferred leisure activities are done from home. I think the pandemic is only one facet of a larger problem. It has certainly stolen the feeling of normalcy from everything. Having to wear a mask any time you go anywhere is a constant reminder that things are not as they were, but even then, it’s not, from my perspective at least, as dire and dystopian as some people feel. I could still go grab a burger with someone in broad daylight, sit at my table without a mask, and pretend for twenty minutes that things were more or less the same.

And I suppose, now that I’m saying it, that this is the problem - it feels like pretend because in a way, it is.

But even more than this generalized sense of displacement from normal life, I think what we’re experiencing has to do with what we've learned about ourselves in the aggregate over the past year.

What do I mean by that?

There’s been an unbelievable amount of dogmatic propagandism on both sides of the COVID debate, for starters. Empiricism was quickly shown the door. One couldn’t say, “Hey, this COVID thing is pretty nasty, but so are the politicians seizing way more power than they’re entitled to” without being excoriated by both sides. You had to signal that you were on board with one of the factions. Either you were supposed to believe that COVID was the most terrifying thing since the black death and everyone should be locked down and masked up FOREVER and report on their neighbors for the slightest violations OR they couldn’t be trusted unless they called it a “plandemic” or a “hoax” and believed that the deaths were being faked (or at least grossly exaggerated) and after all nobody should trust the government or the medical establishment ever, about anything.

“If you don’t believe X, you’re a sociopath” is not a healthy mode of discourse.

Both sized criticized the other for fomenting fear. Both have weaponized fear and ostracization from the word go. And this made reasonable discussion with anyone impossible, because COVID was on everyone’s mind.

I’ll offer an example: in August of 2020, when we were seeing a surge in cases, I tweeted out an article about how there had been an outbreak in a Korean Starbucks because an infected woman spread it unknowingly to some 56 other people. When we go into restaurants to eat, we take off our masks. In this case, it appeared that the only people who didn’t get COVID in that Starbucks were the employees who were required by company policy to wear masks the whole time.

I mentioned the story because a) I like to think out loud and b) I was trying to understand whether mask mandates were a reasonable attempt at “stopping the spread” or merely compliance theater. The anecdote made for what I thought was an interesting data point — to be considered, not dogmatized.

“This makes sense to me,” I tweeted, “but this anecdotal story is not equivalent to a scientific test.”

“Any barrier to infection,” I conceded, “however imperfect, is likely going to help.”

It seemed a thing worth considering. I was pretty sure that even the most ardent skeptic would agree that if I were going to sneeze in their face, it would be preferable if I did it wearing a mask. Droplets, in addition to being gross, carry viral load, and I thought it was logical that masks would provide at least some measure of prophylactic protection. (I’ve since come to the conclusion that whatever benefit masks provide is too negligible to continue public mandates that cause more problems than they solve, but that’s another discussion.)

I thought my dispassionate interest in sharing a case study would simply be of interest to others.

But no. I was so naïve.

One person responded, “56 people were so deadly sick they needed to get tested and treated? Or were they mildly sick, like the flu, but the headline makes it sound deadly?”

But I hadn’t said anything about severity, let alone deadliness. I was merely curious about the mechanism of action for spreading the infection. It wasn’t the point of my observation that they were ALL GOING TO DIE. Only to try to understand whether masks made any difference or not in curbing infection.

Another guy, who has since deleted his tweets, started haranguing me, in response to my tweet, about how people in his neighborhood were about to lose their homes because of public health measures, and didn’t I care about THAT?

It was a big WTF moment.

After some back and forth with him — mind you, this is someone I had been interacting with for some time, had been friendly with, and whose podcast I’d been on more than once — I finally said, “This is what makes trying to ascertain COVID facts obnoxious … Every single examination of information is immediately personalized and rhetorically weaponized. Curiosity about how this works is a good thing, because it allows us to (hopefully) reach informed conclusions.”

I bring this up not to start a COVID debate here in this space — honestly, I’m fine with fact-based differences of opinion on the topic — but rather to illustrate the maddening divisiveness we fell into as the pandemic and official responses to it rolled on. COVID was, in that sense, the proverbial “McGuffin” of 2020 — the metaphorical suitcase bomb or other device that serves only as a means to advance the plot of the story.

What became startlingly clear is that we were not all operating out of the same framework. That we thought we were all entitled to our own “facts.” Faced with an overabundance of information, much of it speculative of even false, cherry picking data that supports narrative bias is easier than ever to do. And we’re left with a sense of total chaos; sense-making becomes impossible. Our interlocutors frustrate us to the point of incoherency. People in such conditions wind up (not unreasonably) assuming bad faith in others — even those with whom they had previously shared much in common. Suspicion becomes the heuristic by which the entire world is interpreted, and paranoia ramps up as a consequence.

Then, during 8 months of non-stop COVID madness while we were all stuck in our homes, we layered in the constant rioting of the woke Left. This made normal people much less likely to want to venture out of the homes the pandemic had forced them to bunker down in, for fear that they’d be violently attacked in the street. The critical race war-mongers gaslit, insulted, and canceled us, and candidates for office threatened us with more of the same if we didn’t vote for them. Unable to even recognize our own country and desperate to have some semblance of it back, we put more pressure on the 2020 election than it could possibly bear. When it seemed that things had gone inexplicably awry, and accusations of fraud and malfeasance started to get thrown around, many of us were too invested to let go of the hope we had placed in a political solution to what looked more like a moral and intellectual collapse of Western Civilization. And the same thing we’d been doing with COVID — sharing conspiracy theories, arguing over competing sets of incompatible “facts,” and weaponizing narrative bias so strong it could power a city — we wound up doing with our politics.

In one of my first Substack posts, on November 9, 2020, I wrote about the fact that there were serious indications of voter fraud, and that it was reasonable to conclude that at least some had transpired. I included a note of caution that is interesting in retrospect:

I am absolutely certain that no matter what happens, the country is worse off for this disaster. The psychological construct being impressed upon our populace right now by an unscrupulous, propagandistic media and our leftist political class is that Biden has won (an assertion that nations such as China, Mexico, and Russia refuse to accept until the election process is officially resolved) is creating a situation that will grow more and more unstable should the courts wind up reversing the process. People are growing increasingly invested in this “reality”; if it turns out to be illusory, many won’t be able to accept it.

For the globalist Left, this is a win/win: they either have the electoral victory with which to promote their agenda, or they get the mass destabilization and unrest that will further their attempts to destroy what’s left of this country and replace it with a system of their choosing.

So close to the seemingly unbelievable outcome of the election, I, too, had bought into the narrative that there was enough evidence of fraud that there was a fighting chance to overturn things — something I only started to realize was wishful thinking in late November. It was too much evidence for any person to verify for themselves, so I think “narrative” is the right word here — lots of claims, not nearly as much empirical proof. I was sufficiently convinced that Trump supporters had a fighting chance that I was concerned that the Left would be unable to let go of the illusion of a Biden victory if the thing was overturned.

On the contrary, however, it was the Right that I should have been worried about. They bought into the illusion so deeply that many of them still don’t see that the goose is well and truly cooked. It’s possible that voter fraud existed on a mass scale, but the simple fact is that Trump failed to put together a legal effort capable of proving it — and his overwhelming number of losses in court testify to that. The Supreme Court rejected the last three cases challenging the election result just last month, putting an end to the attempt to overturn the result.

And yet at the end of March, My Pillow CEO and Trump uber-supporter Mike Lindell declared publicly that Trump would be “back in office in August.” No amount of lost cases, unverified claims, or broken promises about “Krakens” that never materialize can dissuade true believers.

Anyone who, like me, voted for Trump enthusiastically but later saw that his entire campaign effort turned into a three-ring circus after election day, was summarily excommunicated. I found this out rather quickly:

And so, to return to the original point of this piece, I think that the breakdowns people are having aren’t really because they’re working at home, or missing out on lunch meetings with colleagues, and so on. Sure, those contribute to the sense of surreality, because we seek an escape in feelings of normalcy to help us cope with times of great tumult.

But I think the deeper issue is that man was made for meaning, and having lost our collective grip on reality in a way that we’ve now all experienced repeatedly, to the point of exhaustion, over the past year, has completely severed our sense of…sense. Even if you’ve read through this piece with growing irritation, finding my characterizations of COVID, cancel culture, or the election to be contrary to what you believe, I’m fairly certain that you, too, can recognize that we have common ground in feeling that “nothing makes sense anymore.”

The weird thing about objective truth is that we all have the capacity to recognize it. As the old rhetorical canard goes, even saying, “There’s no such thing as objective truth” would be a contradiction in terms; that assertion itself represents an objective truth.

For the Catholics in my audience, there’s another layer to all of this. Most of what I’ve been discussing has been on a societal level. But with the continued deepening of the crisis in the Church, the rise of papal conspiracy theories and a parallel magisterium as a countervailing force to an error and scandal-riddled papacy, there is a disheartening lack of consolation in what had always seemed like the one place we could turn to for certainty - the faith. It all adds up to an impression that things are not only continually getting worse right now, but that they may never actually get better again.

Because how do you find your way out of a labyrinth when you’re totally in the dark?

All of this that we are now enduring is very much related to a growing realization that the world is not, and perhaps has never been, what we thought it really was. That our fellow man is, rather than being basically good and decent, in fact ready and eager to hurt us if we get in his way. That ignorance, untruth, and even malice are actually perceived as team virtues as long as one is singing the anthem of their tribe. It doesn't matter if a person actually understands what’s really going on regarding significant social or cultural issues; instead, what’s important is knowing, believing, and proselytizing via complete buy-in to the in-group talking points.

It’s us vs. them writ large, and it’s growing more dangerous all the time.

For those content to be part of a roaring crowd, there’s probably some real comfort in this. “Do this and you’re on the team, and we’ll have each other’s backs.” But for anyone incapable of putting team before truth — those compelled to think for themselves and not just take orders — this is unworkable. Man is a social creature, and we need to belong. In times of extreme ideological polarization, free-thinkers can easily find themselves lost without that critical sense of belonging…anywhere. This awareness can be extremely isolating, and consequently, quite depressing.

For such individuals, where do we turn? Even if we have friends & family we can visit these days, do they get it? Or do we feel like we can't actually talk about anything we really believe without starting an argument or being categorically dismissed? How many friends or associates did we enjoy interacting with for years until the conflicts of the past year put an end to our relationships? It increasingly appears as though "normal life" as it was before, with all of its attendant niceties & requisite social tact, has now been replaced by a tenuous sort of online interconnectedness devoid of such things. Worse yet, this new social framework has crept back into the real world now as well.

Having the façade stripped away, we realize how alone we really are. For some of us, we turn to God, only to find that He seems terrifyingly silent.

We need to find real meaning and purpose right now more deeply and fundamentally than we probably ever have, at least in living memory. This is existential angst we're facing, and we're ill-equipped.

This recognition, more than anything, is what is driving the expansion of my work out of the ideological ghetto I’d trapped myself in and into this new space: no more purity tests. No more restraints. We need to seek out answers, because it’s way past time we found some.